The strains of music and laughter, mingled with the sharp scent of evergreens, floated upstairs as Caro, perched inconspicuously in the shadows on the top step, pulled her skirts closer around her and craned her neck to get a better view of the brilliant assemblage gathered below for the annual Christmas masquerade at Mandeville Park. Despite her uncle's best efforts and the enormous sums spent on the introduction of every modern comfort, the ancient house still remained, as her cousin Lavvy scornfully referred to it, "a drafty old pile." It was against these frigid currents that Caro hugged her mother's old cashmere shawl tightly around her. Regardless of her uncomfortable position, she would not have missed the ball that had been the sole thought of the entire household for the past month. From her maid, Alice, who had been commandeered to lend a hand in the creation of Miss Lavvy's costume, to Lavinia herself, who was the darling of the household and queen of the event, Mandeville Park had been a bustle of frantic preparation. Accustomed as Lavvy was to the unqualified admiration of those who surrounded her, with the possible exception of her brother Tony, Viscount Blessington, who remained unmoved by any creature possessed of only two legs, Lavinia Mandeville had been annoyed by the intrusion of her young cousin into a household that revolved around her. However, it had not taken the beauty long to realize that it behooved her to win the support of Lady Caroline Waverly. Caro, gifted with a keen understanding and a helpful nature, carried out her wishes far more discreetly and with far more alacrity than the maids who were more accustomed to Lavvy's demanding ways, or her mother who, though properly adoring of her beautiful daughter, did draw the line at some things and could certainly not be entrusted with the delivery of the billets doux which continuously arrived from a variety of directions. Shy and observant, and model of discretion that she was, Lavvy's young cousin was the ideal messenger in these delicate affairs and her usefulness soon outweighed any disarrangement she might have caused the ravishing Lavinia.
Though well aware of the self-centered nature of her cousin, Caro, in her loneliness, had been more than happy to run every tiresome errand. The only child of the renowned diplomat Lord Hugo Waverly, Lady Caroline had been accustomed to accompanying her peripatetic parent to all his diplomatic posts where she had been the most important member of the widowed statesman's household. From the time she could talk, and for as long as she could remember, Caro had been surrounded by guests ranging from petty potentates to rulers of international importance. But this year, the talents of Lord Waverly were being called upon in some delicate negotiations in St. Petersburg. Even Lord Waverly, intrepid traveler that he was, had some qualms about taking a motherless child of eleven to such a distant and foreign land. Caro had offered a token protest, but seeing the determined set of her ordinarily unconcerned father's jaw, she had quickly resigned herself to the kindly but dull hospitality of Mandeville Park, merely admonishing her parent to dress warmly and take care to avoid the wiles of Russian ladies.
She had journeyed with him to Dover and saw him off, managing to keep a cheerful smile on her face until the vessel was out of sight. Even then she only gave way to tears of loneliness for the briefest of moments until William--butler, forager, and general factotum of the Waverly ménage--had comforted her. "There, there, Miss Caro. You'll be right as rain in no time, you'll see. You'll go to visit your cousins, and though they don't hold a candle to his lordship, they're a sight better than being surrounded by a pack of Roosians."
Caro had summoned up a watery smile and resolved to do her best so that William and her father would be proud of her. And if her best meant catering to the whims of a young lady more spoiled than the most spoiled of beauties who had ever cast admiring eyes at her handsome father, well, so be it. Still, she missed him most dreadfully. Particularly in this merry holiday season. Caro would have given a good deal to see the twinkle in his bright blue and hear the laughter in his voice as he swung her in his arms declaring, "There's my girl. And how goes it with the most precious lady in all of Europe, the Indies, and Araby?"
Caro sighed and blinked back the lonely tears that began to prick her eyes. Just then, a particularly violent blast of cold air made her gasp and hug herself more tightly as the ballroom door was opened wide and then immediately closed. A laughing couple made quickly for the privacy of the little alcove under the stair landing just beneath Caro's perch. Candlelight gleamed on fair curls and Caro just had time to identify her cousin before Lavinia's teasing voice scolded, "Well, Sirrah, now that you have dragged me from my guests in this unseemly and precipitate manner, state the reason for this importunate behavior.''
"Ah, Lavvy, what man would not do his utmost to steal a precious minute alone with the belle of the ball," a deep voice replied. There was a silence during which the unwilling observer, acutely uncomfortable, held her breath and wished most desperately they would go away.
A rustle of clothing and the scent of her cousin's perfume wafted up the staircase. "Nicky Daventry, you naughty thing!" Despite the words, her cousin's voice, though slightly breathless, sounded rather more pleased than angry.
"I don't beg your pardon, Lavvy. What else could a man do when he is so close to such intoxicating beauty and after being treated so cruelly all evening. Lavvy, we can't go on like this. I must have you. Say you'll marry me."
There was more silence, more rustling, and then a tinkling, slightly nervous laugh, "Marry you? Why, Nicholas, what an absurd notion!"
"But I love you and you love me," the deep voice protested.
"Well, of course, but what has that got to do with marriage? Now don't poker-up at me, Nicky. You can't expect me to tie myself to a younger son with no expectations and who is a soldier, besides. With that dreadful Napoleon on the loose, you could be killed at any moment and then where would I be?"
There was an ominous pause before she continued brightly, "Now stop looking like a thundercloud and escort me back to the ballroom. I mustn't be gone too long or our guests will miss me."
"And it would never do for the beauteous Lavinia Mandeville to miss a single opportunity to be the cynosure of all eyes." A distinctly cynical note had replaced the pleading one.
Lavinia appeared to hesitate. "Now, Nicky, don't be so out-of-reason cross. You know it was impossible. Come along. I shall let you have the next waltz." She offered this with all the appearance of someone making a magnanimous concession. However, it appeared to have no effect.
"You go. A man don't feel like dancing when he discovers his affections have been trifled with."
"Oh, do stop being so gothic, Nicky." She was exasperated now and not making the least effort to hide it. "Very well, then." And Lavinia marched off towards the ballroom, head held high and her back as stiff as a ramrod.
There followed a deep sigh and Caro, acutely uncomfortable over her inadvertent eavesdropping, tried to squeeze back farther into the shadows. Unfortunately, she pulled back into a garland of greens draped over the banister, which tickled her nose. Struggle though she did with the sneeze that threatened to overcome her, in the end she could not prevent it and a loud "aachoo" resounded across the landing where she was ensconced.
The disastrous effects of this lack of control were immediate. Quick steps approached up the stairs and a dark furious face peered down at her. "Who the devil are you and what are you doing here?" the deep voice she had heard begging her cousin moments before demanded angrily.
"If you please, sir, I'm Caro." This appeared to do nothing to assuage his wrath and as the face remained truly alarming she continued hurriedly, "I'm Lavvy's cousin. Please don't be upset. I didn't mean to overhear only--only I was watching the dancers and then you came and I couldn't escape without calling attention to myself, which would have been most inopportune." There was a pause while this sank in. "Besides, Lavvy said I might watch," she added defensively.
He seemed satisfied. The angry light faded from the dark-blue eyes to be replaced by a somber look. "Then you know my life is ruined by that jade, your cousin. The only woman I have ever loved enough to propose to and she tells me I'm not good enough and then returns to the dancing without so much as a by-your-leave. Hah! Women! They make me ill. If they aren't nagging you, they are using you to feed their own petty vanity. Well, that tears it. I'm off. I shall never put my heart forward robe trampled on again. I shall return to the Peninsula and cover myself with glory. At least I know Boney's my enemy, and glory is far more enduring than love it appears." He gave a cynical snort.
"I am most dreadfully sorry. I am sure Lavvy didn't intend to be quite so mean-spirited, but she's so very pretty you know, and everyone pets her so much that she is rather selfish." Caro, though she felt bound to defend her cousin, could not help acknowledging the truth. She paused for a moment, reflecting. "Besides, are you so very sure you were in love with her?"
"What a question," he began explosively. "Who could not be in love with her? She is enchanting--so graceful, so vivacious, so delicate--she is every man's dream. How can you ask such a thing?"
Privately Caro thought that if her cousin were every man's dream, then the male sex was in a worse state than she had previously supposed, but she refrained from comment. "Well," she began slowly and thoughtfully, "you seem more angry than sad. If you were truly in love with her, you would be so very sorry you could not be mad. Besides, though you greatly admire her beauty, you don't sound as though you like her very much." Caro paused, before adding triumphantly, "If you want to know what I think, I think your pride is more hurt than your heart is."
He was at first thunderstruck and then furious. "Why, of course I love her! And what would a mere chit of a schoolgirl know about love? Why, I have been dreaming of her ever since I saw her. Every man who sees her must be in love with her--and they are. They are drawn to her like moths to a flame and..." Here he paused as the import of his words sank in. "And she adores it, the hussy. She didn't care about me except that I admired her, and having just come from the miserable campaign in the Peninsula, I was more exciting than the rest." He grimaced ruefully and looked down into the wide gray eyes regarding him sympathetically. "Perhaps you're in the right of it, young Caro, and I shall recover sooner than I thought."
She smiled shyly. "I hope so. And I am persuaded that being a soldier must be far more amusing than being tied to Lavvy. She can be a trifle exigeante you know."
A tiny sigh escaped her. With her knees hugged up against her, swathed in the enormous shawl and masses of glossy dark hair tumbling down her back, she looked like a small child, though her attire and her presence proclaimed her to be not much less than five or six years younger than Lavinia. At the same time, there was such a wisdom and understanding in the dark-fringed eyes and the apologetic smile tugging at the corners of her generous mouth that she projected the world-weary air of one far older and more sophisticated. Truly, she was an odd little thing, but he found himself liking her. She had completed the destruction of his worshipful vision, a process that Lavvy herself had started. But Caro had done it with such sympathy and concern that somehow he felt he had gained rather than lost a friend out of the whole affair.
Her voice interrupted this train of thought and he realized that she was still speaking. Nicholas came to with a start. "I beg your pardon. I was not attending."
Caro nodded, a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. "I asked you what it was like in the Peninsula. Have you seen Wellington? Do you think we make any progress there? Of course one reads the dispatches, but they say so little." Her questions tumbled out one after another. What sort of foe were the French? Were they such fierce fighters as it was rumored? How did they eat in such a war-torn land? Were the Spanish grateful for their presence?
Decidedly, he thought, an absurd little creature, but a refreshing one and a blessed change from all the others who barely even pretended the most desultory interest in the events taking place. Even Lavinia, who had taken such delight in announcing to envious friends and jealous beaux, "Captain Daventry has just come from the Peninsula, you know, where he covered himself with distinction." This was always accompanied with a melting look in Nicholas's direction, but in truth she did not wish to know anything about the action which had resulted in his being invalided home. A wounded officer was a romantic addition to her entourage and his convalescence at his family's nearby estate had allowed him to devote more time and attention to her than anyone of perfect health could have. In all their talks, Lavinia had never evinced the least curiosity over the battle raging in Europe and after having exclaimed over his arm in its sling and the dashing scar on his temple, she did not care to hear more. She had reproached him, in fact. "Really, Nicholas, you shouldn't talk of such things, you know. People find them quite upsetting."
His quiet reply, "Well, they are upsetting," had drawn a brief look of reproof.
"Yes, I daresay, very likely. But tell me, what do you think of my new bonnet? Is it not divine? I would not have thought to procure such a thing outside of London, but Mama has discovered the most talented milliner right here in Haslemere." And indeed, she had looked so enchanting dimpling up to him that it had driven thoughts of anything else clean out of his head.
Perhaps it was the very contrast she provided to the grim scenes of war that had made Nicholas long to make her his. After the discomfort of camp life and the rough companionship of his fellow soldiers, Lavinia had seemed like an angel--all grace, beauty, gaiety, and elegance--and he had worshipped her blindly. More for what she was than who she was, he now supposed. But it had taken this infant with her serious gray eyes to show this to him. The vision of peace and beauty faded to be replaced by a picture of Lavinia as she truly was: lovely and amusing, yes, but not a little self-centered, and definitely with her heart set on capturing a more glamorous prize than Captain Nicholas Daventry. He smiled ironically. No doubt she would catch one and he could count himself lucky to have escaped. It was all owing to Caro that he would be able to gather himself together and make his way toward the ballroom in a relatively cheerful frame of mind. Nicholas, who had been staring fixedly into space while mulling over these thoughts, turned to thank her, but she had vanished into the darkness at the top of the stairs.